On September 1, 1918, the 1st Pursuit Group was shifted east to Rembercourt because the front lines were moving so rapidly. Rembercourt is a small town located between Bar le Duc and Verdun. As such, it straddles the famed "Voie Sacre" which was used to keep the French forces supplied during the Battle of Verdun.
The move to Rembercourt was necessary so that the planes could be closer to the front so that they could stay in action longer. For aircraft of 1918, moving air units up in support of and closer to moving front lines meant that airplanes could consume less fuel, loiter longer over the combat area, and get to the combat area faster. Under optimal conditions, the planes only had a flight duration of two to two and a half hours, depending on aircraft type. Thus a flight which took 45 minutes to get to the front lines might mean being able to loiter and fight for 10 to 15 minutes before needing to return to base and still having a small margin for error – like getting lost or having to fight wind drift (and the prevailing winds were to the northeast in the direction of German lines). The pilots did get lost from time to time, so that margin of error was critical to be able to turn back into the right direction and still have enough fuel to land at their home field.
There were now 29 combat squadrons. 12 were in the three pursuit groups: 1st, 2nd and 3rd, with four squadrons apiece. These three added to the 1st Bombardment Group – also with four squadrons, together made up the 1st Pursuit Wing. The Army Observation Group had three squadrons. The Corps Observation Wing had eight squadrons organized into three groups under it. And then there were two more Observation Groups with one squadron apiece: the 88th and 258th respectively. Still another one or two squadrons served under RAF Command.
By September 4th, 1st was at Rembercourt, 2nd was in Toul along with the two squadrons of the 1st observation group and the 3rd Pursuit Group was at Vaucouleurs. The 4th Observation Group was at Ourches, the Night Reconnaissance Bombing Group at Amanty and the 5th Observation Group was at Souilly. By September 11th, most would have moved to new fields.
The logistics needed to support such operations was demanding. Rembercourt, for instance, had 51,000 gallons of fuel on hand, 7850 gallons of castor oil, 100 gallons of BB oil and 3838 gallons of fighting spirits. These had to be trucked in from as far as away as Orly – where the Americans had a large stockpile. The further the airfields moved from Orly, the more difficult it was to keep them supplied.
September 4, 1918:
"218th - The squadron which had remained behind at Saints for the purpose of closing the airdrome, proceeded to Rembercourt, by truck convoy."
The same day there is an entry that I thought was humorous:
"All calibre .30 Armor Piercing ammunition was recalled by the depots, All officers notified that the billets they were occupying were paid by the Government and that each officer would individually pay for services rendered but would not attempt to make use of the Landlady’s wardrobe, which she was authorized to withhold."
The migration to Spad fighters was now complete across the various fighter squadrons not just in the 1st Pursuit Group, but in the 2nd and 3rd Pursuit Groups as well.
18 of the American squadrons had participated in support of the Allied drive on St. Mihiel located to the east of Rembercourt. St. Mihiel was a German salient into the Allied lines. The salient was about 40 miles long, though the wide base was only about half of that. The Germans had created the salient four years earlier – in six days from September 19 to September 25, 1914. The bulge pointed southwest from the linje that generally ran southeast to northwest. Three main cities described the salient: Verdun in the northwest, St. Mihiel in the southwest, and Pont-A-Mousson, astride the Moselle River to the southeast.
On September 12, 1918 thirteen American and eight French colonial divisions of the US I, IV, V Corps and the French II Colonial Corps totaling 264,000 troops launched their attack against 75,000 German and Austro-Hungarian ones. The attack started off with a four hour long bombardment by 2,971 pieces of artillery. The air armada of almost 1500 Allied aircraft commanded by Billy Mitchell was the largest collection of combat airplanes ever gathered for a single operation.
Airpower played a major role in the St. Mihiel effort. Under Mitchell’s direct command were 1,481 combat airplanes from the U.S., France, Great Britain, and Italy, enabling him to apply in practice the theories of mass and emphasis on the offensive that he had been nursing. Mitchell had assembled the largest concentration of Allied aircraft of the war, and he wielded them according to a carefully orchestrated plan. Mitchell allocated units on the basis of where the main fighting would take place in an effort to deal a knock-out blow to the enemy from the air. First, his pursuit would sweep the German air force from the sky, thus denying enemy reconnaissance the ability to see what was taking place and enabling Allied reconnaissance to observe, photograph, and report. In the meantime, bombardment aircraft would attack airfields, railway stations, bridges, ammunition dumps, and troop concentrations beginning, before Pershing’s "Doughboys" attacked and continuing throughout the advance. Once the assault began, Mitchell’s pursuits would also range far to the German rear, eliminating enemy aircraft and opening the way for the bombardment squadrons.
Within 30 hours, the Allies had grabbed 13,250 prisoners and 460 enemy artillery in exchange for 8,000 casualties. It was a tremendous success marred only by the escape of many of the Germans. But the salient had been pinched off, the lines shortened and the Germans had been given yet another bloody nose.
A series of offensives across the entire Western Front kicked off on September 26. On that date, 15 American and 22 French divisions attacked across the front from the Meuse near Verdun to Reims. The next day, the British Third Army with 15 divisions and the British First Army with 12 divisions attacked around Arras in northern France. On the 28th, the British Second Army with 10 divisions, the Belgian Army with 12 divisions and the French Sixth Army with six divisions attacked north of Arras to the Belgian coast.
It was while the men were in Rembercourt that Frank Luke and his wingman Joe Wehner had their incredible streak of victories. And it was while they based at Rembercourt that Joe Wehner was killed and a few days later on September 28, Frank Luke was killed.
During October, the 94th squadron had thirty nine victories, but only five losses.
On October 13, Billy Mitchell was promoted to Brigadier General on the recommendation of John J. Pershing in recognition of all that Mitchell had done during the St. Mihiel offensive.
The war was taking a toll on the men and aircraft of the USAS.
By October 15, Mitchell could field 579 serviceable aircraft, despite the arrival of additional squadrons. His three pursuit groups were reduced to little more than 150 aircraft out of an authorized strength of about 300.
Yet the German air units were being ground down as well. By the end of the war, it was the Allies who easily controlled the air. Air to air combats started to drop precipitously as poor weather blocked operations and the Germans took to the air in smaller and smaller numbers.
The Allied air units had done their job across the front. The Americans had covered their sector well and tangled with the best of the German squadrons and had come out on top. On November 11, 1918, the war was over at last.
Related Links: Quentin Roosevelt | Frank Luke | Eddie Rickenbacker | Raoul Lufbery | Eugene Bullard | David Ingalls - 1st Navy Ace | "American Eagles" - 345 page illustrated history of US Combat Aviation in World War I
Learn more about the United States Air Service's 1st Pursuit Group:
Toul, Touquin, Saints and Mauperthuis and Rembercourt, "American Eagles" - 345 page illustrated history of US Combat Aviation in World War I